James J. O’Connor, founding chairman of Big Shoulders Fund, dies

By Chicago Catholic staff
Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Photo provided by the Big Shoulders Fund

James J. O’Connor, the founding chairman of the Big Shoulders Fund, died July 31. Mr. O’Connor was 86.

Born in Chicago, Mr. O’Connor joined Commonwealth Edison as a lineman in 1963, the same year he completed service in the U.S. Air Force and earned a law degree from Georgetown University. He worked in various positions at the company, including president, before being named CEO in 1980. He held that position until 1998.

Mr. O’Connor also earned an MBA from Harvard University.

During that time, he became the founding chairman of the Big Shoulders Fund, a non-profit that has raised more than $600 million to support Catholic schools in under-resourced communities in the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Diocese of Gary, Indiana, since it was created in 1986.

“If they hadn’t gotten Jim, they might not have raised a million dollars,” said Joshua Hale, president and CEO of the Big Shoulders Fund.

“Through his leadership and generosity, Jim O’Connor bettered the lives of tens of thousands of young people who received support from the Big Shoulders Fund,” said Greg Richmond, superintendent of Catholic schools for the archdiocese. “There are dozens of Catholic schools that would not exist today but for him and the many generous supporters of Big Shoulders. He truly embodied God’s calling to all of us to love and serve our neighbor.”

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin asked Mr. O’Connor to lead the effort to create a new organization to help support Catholic schools that served neighborhoods in need, Hale said, and Mr. O’Connor — a graduate of Little Flower School, St. Ignatius College Prep and College of the Holy Cross, as well as Harvard and Georgetown universities — ran with it, Hale said.

“I think the most remarkable thing is that when Cardinal Bernardin approached Jim about helping the inner-city Catholic schools, there wasn’t a plan,” he said. “There was no history of giving in this way in this mission. It was a blank piece of paper. It was a Herculean task, and it was going to take a lot of heavy lifting. Jim just persisted.”

Mr. O’Connor was already well-connected in Chicago’s charitable, civic and corporate circles, said Msgr. Kenneth Velo, co-chairman of the Big Shoulders Fund.

“Mr. O’Connor, through countless charities, in particular for the local Catholic Church, has raised awareness and funds in an extraordinary way,” Velo said. “I don’t think anyone in the history of the Archdiocese of Chicago has raised as much in resources as Jim O’Connor in his years as chairman of the Big Shoulders Fund. He was an extraordinary individual.”

The Big Shoulders Fund now supports 92 schools, 20 in the Diocese of Gary and 72 in the Archdiocese of Chicago, mostly on the South and West sides of Chicago. It offers scholarships and enrichment, operational improvements, academic programs and leadership development, with an increased level of involvement and commitment to 30 Big Shoulders Plus schools.

Hale said Mr. O’Connor was revered for his energy, his integrity, his intelligence, his sense of humor and his work ethic.

“Someone once told me that you always want to work with Jim, because he would do 95 percent of the work and you would get half the credit,” Hale said. “When I got here 18 years ago, I was so fortunate that this giant became a mentor, and then this mentor became a great friend.”

Mr. O’Connor is survived by his wife, Ellen; their children Fred O’Connor, James O’Connor and Elizabeth Cole; and nine grandchildren.


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